Thursday, November 08, 2007
$100 Oil and Commuter Colleges
My cc, like most community colleges and many lower-tier four-year colleges, doesn't have dorms. Since it's located in suburbia, public transportation options are extremely limited and not very good. So most students, and almost all employees, drive. (A select few ride one of the rare buses.) We even refer to it as a commuter college.
Parking is an issue, which has always been true at every college known to man. But we've dealt with that forever, and have reached a sort of tolerable detente on it. I still think that anything tall and opaque (i.e. SUV's) should be segregated into a different lot, so the rest of us can actually see what's coming when we try to back out of our spaces, but that's another issue.
Now oil is coming close to $100 a barrel, which, sooner or later, is likely to trickle down to gasoline prices. (As I mentioned recently, I'm surprised that it really hasn't yet. But it will.) Some of that price runup is likely due to the monumental, world-historical idiocy of the Bush administration's foreign and fiscal policies, and may be remedied somewhat when we elect somebody worthy. But some of it, I think, is likely due to a combination of rising world demand for oil – especially in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) – and the much-slower pace of new discoveries. Whether oil came from dinosaurs or lava or both, we're pumping it faster than the planet is making it. Even a President who understands the concepts of 'wars of choice' and 'balanced budgets' and 'peace dividend' will have her work cut out for her.
In other words, even if we as a country stop sabotaging ourselves, we as a college face a fundamental, long-term challenge to our business model. We're built on cars.
We cater to students who have to work part-time at low-paying jobs to get through school. As the low-tuition option, we attract the folks to whom low tuition is the most salient. Transportation is a major cost for our students. They often drive older cars of suspect reliability, and find themselves at the mercy of whatever repairs need to be made. Their jobs pay crap, and car insurance – especially for young males – is staggeringly expensive.* If the price of gas continues to climb substantially, eventually I wouldn't be surprised to see some of these students cut back, or drop out entirely.
Online instruction has something to be said for it in this respect, since the cost advantage of telecommuting (as opposed to standard commuting) only climbs as the price of gas climbs. But very few students take all-online schedules; most use an online class or two as part of their mix, to make the job-school juggle easier. They're still driving to campus three or four days a week. Unless there's a really dramatic embrace of all-online education, I suspect that the transportation-cost gains from this will be minor. (Theoretically, we could also move everything to a half-online, half-classroom 'hybrid' format, and run all the classroom classes, say, on Mondays and Tuesdays. But at this point, students avoid hybrid classes like the plague.)
There's also the question of the relevance of geographically-defined service areas to online education. Community colleges have specific geographic areas they're designed to serve, which makes sense if you assume that everybody drives to campus. But if you can log on from anywhere, how much sense does a geographic distinction make? If we embrace a more thoroughgoing online approach, I'd expect to see the whole concept of 'service areas' start to fade. The political implications are staggering.
Dorms are the classic solution. Park everybody on campus, let them walk to class, and cars become irrelevant. At Snooty Liberal Arts College, I didn't have a car at all for all four years.
But that only works when the college is either highly urban, or extremely wealthy. In a setting in which most students work off-campus for money, parking them in dorms doesn't really solve the problem. Instead of being stranded off-campus, they'd be stranded on-campus.
Dorms also bring with them the infrastructure needs, and student-life issues, that drive up the costs of four-year schools. Keep students stuck on campus, and they'll start demanding climbing walls and football teams and the rest of it; the costs will follow.
Public transportation will not be a viable large-scale alternative in suburbia for the foreseeable future. The travel patterns just aren't linear enough.
To the extent that transportation costs are factored into financial aid awards, we may be able to offset a very small amount of the impact. But even that money has to come from somewhere.
Am I missing the obvious? Or are we staring down the barrel of a serious long-term problem?
*Every so often, somebody proposes removing 'liability' insurance from individual drivers and tacking it onto gasoline as a tax. This strikes me as absolutely brilliant, since it moves insurance from a fixed cost to a variable one. Taking the bus half the time would reduce your insurance cost by half; right now, it reduces it not at all. As my economist friends like to say, you have to get the incentives right.
I just don't buy this. There are ways to make it linear, by setting up collection zones where people gather to get the transport at amenable times of day to get to and from the CC. The transport doesn't have to serve the whole of suburbia, just the CC. My suburban campus does shuttle buses because we have two campuses and it works brilliantly.
And I'll stump for a minute. PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION MUST BE MADE A PRIORITY IN NORTH AMERICA. The excuses are lame and must stop, and large institutions like CCs and Universities and Research Parks should be at the forefront of the pressure movement to get things moving.
The virtue of Des Moines was housing. I paid $185 a month for a fully furnished efficiency apartment (late 1980s). The downsize was crappy mass transportation. The city buses stopped running at 6 PM (no kidding), so having a car was critical (I was a working musician).
At that time, Iowa had no motor vehicle inspection and you did NOT have to have insurance. So, my very first car was a rusting 1977 Pontiac Grand Am with mag wheels and a lovely peeling white vinyl top (think Carrie Fischer's car in Blues Brothers, 12 years later). It was such a junker other drivers would get out of my way, since it was clear I was trouble.
I had that car for 2 years. Paid $600 for it, sold it for $100 as scrap. I dumped it largely because when it rained on the outside, it rained on the inside.
But I think the Iowa compromise did help out low-income folks (or at least me). The yuppie suburbanites would howl at the junkers still on the road (because almost everything was "street legal"), but these were the same folks who thought tax dollars spent on public transport was "pouring money down a rat hole."
One last thing: do you know why "at this point, students avoid hybrid classes like the plague"?
2. Public Transportation will not work in most of North America. Where I grew up, the nearest grocery store, fast food place and stop light was 30 miles away. There is no way for public transportation to be in any way convenient for localities that are spread so far apart.
3. Online courses. I tried to take an online course in college and hated it with a passion. I soon dropped the class. Learning online is simply not a viable option for some people.
Since you're a community college, I'm guessing your students don't drive more than 15 miles each way to get to their classes. Even if they are on campus every day---and odds are most aren't--that's a total commute of 150 miles/week.
Gas prices have consistently been at least $2.50 a gallon for years, and you know your students will commute now. If gas goes to $4 a gallon (yipes!), and your students drive beaters that only get 20 mpg, that only works out to an extra $11.25 a week (7.5 gallons times the extra $1.50/gallon). A student driving a car that gets 35 mpg will only pay an extra $6.50.
Of course, if commutes are shorter than 30 miles round trip, or don't happen every day, or gas isn't $4 a gallon, the economic effect is even smaller.
Bottom line: nobody is going to stop going to college because it costs an extra $5-$10 a week for gas. Not when a half-caf venti costs $4.
A few years ago I was offered the chance to teach one of my favorite courses at a university about 70 miles down the road from where I live and work (in a town bereft of serious public transportation). I asked if I could offer it online, and I did so; I haven't regretted it, although I have occasionally called The Wrath Of The Almighty down on BlackBoard and my (former) ISP. My department head likes the option (doesn't crowd the on-campus schedule), I save gas and time,, my students can do the same (it would be a night class otherwise) and they end up interacting well and learning. I'm in one city, the home campus is in another and the students are spread out over three counties--so, "where" is the college campus? Wherever they're thinking and learning, I would say--and the students are already there.
As for hybrid classes, maybe students stay away from them because they seem likely to end up as all the work of a conventional class, with half-baked online follies as well.
Many (most?) of the economically disadvantaged students who work part-time in Expensive Coffee Shops don't buy their coffee there. It's fallacious to lump commuting college students in the same category as privileged yuppie consumers in tall, opaque SUVs.
I should also point out that "the price of oil" isn't really the price of oil. It's the price of a slip of paper on a particular market that you could redeem for a particular type of oil some set amount of time in the future. In reality, few of these slips are ever redeemed. Instead, the oil/gas companies have deals for long-term contracts directly with the countries that produce them. There's certainly a link between the price of "oil" on NYMEX and the actual price that the companies pay, but it's not a direct correspondence.
Even if the student is incredibly economically disadvantaged, she is already paying multiple hundreds of dollars a month to run the car, insure it, and keep it fueled. An extra $1-2 a day is just not going to make a difference in the decision to attend college or not. There are already too many other associated costs for that do be a deal-breaker. (If the college has a $100/semester activity fee, that will cost as much as an increase in gas price from $2.50 to $4!)
Of course, the student may be doing something like ride-sharing or other cost-saving measures. If that's the case, though, the impact of gas prices also scales down. No matter what, it's just penny-ante.
There are scholarships available for this small fee, and students apply for those scholarships. So clearly, ten bucks a week is a significant chunk of money for some students.
I didn't get my driver's license until I was 26, and I was already working there then. I still don't generally drive on the freeway. (The 3rd time ever that I did, I got winged by a semi halfway through a 60 mile drive. Not enough to be forced to stop, but enough to be very traumatic. I still wince when semis pass, even when I'm not driving.)
My former employer was 30 miles away, almost all freeway, and I took a vanpool. To go between campuses required use of one's own car, or a 2 hour bus ride. If I had to meet with people at the other campus, I usually made a day of it because it was easier to go straight there from home, bus-wise. Until they canceled the express part of the route.
Shortly after I left, my whole department was moved to the other campus, an extra 10 miles from home, with no vanpool available. I am thanking my lucky stars that I left, because I would've had NO alternative but to drive...unless I was willing to spend 2+ hours EACH WAY on the bus.
I like the bus, but not that much. :)
There's a chicken/egg thing at work with public transit, esp. on the west coast. It's inconvenient, so nobody does it, so it ends up being "for poor people," so it doesn't get good funding, so it's inconvenient. Building patterns, zoning, etc. don't help either.
Sorry. I have many years worth of ranting about transportation stored up in my head.
I will say that the CC in my county (not my former employer, BTW) has a deal with the local transit agency to give free bus passes to all enrolled students. Same deal applies to the state college in our town.
I think it's a smart starting point. I have, in all seriousness, considered taking a course at local CC partially to get the bus pass, but my current employer reimburses for bus passes/fares. I ::heart:: my current employer.
Install a gas pump on campus, tied to student ID's / student aid. Assuming you can successfully make a case for student aid being appropriately used for transportation costs some portion of that money could be left un-disbursed and accessible through the ID card. Usable at both the bookstore and the gas pump it would ensure that part of the aid money went to the supplies necessary for succeeding in class.
I know there are a lot of issues involved, but it would be one way to help the situation. One of the fuel companies might even be amenable to underwriting the cost, and possibly even discounting the fuel slightly - they'll get branding to a captive audience; goodwill/PR from helping solve the education bottlenecks facing the community's students. The ability for faculty/staff to pay into their account would be a moderately significant benefit - onsite fuel means no detours / lines on the way to or from work slowing your travel (half-hour between classes? Go fill up the car and come right back in. Same goes for break time for the hourly people.) Any discounting that can be negotiated relative to local gas stations would of course increase the demand, and thus the overall return for the chosen supplier.
While Dictyranger is theoretically correct, I'm afraid our students (at least in my rural neck of the woods) don't follow convention. They see a rise in gas prices and believe, correctly or not, that they can't drive to school so they don't. I personally think some students look for any excuse to stop out and gas prices are the convenient villian these days.
Likewise, I see students who will spend $1 a day on a saugage bisquit every morning, rather than buying a box of cereal and eating breakfast for twice as many days. It doesn't come close to making economic sense, but it is what it is in their worlds. I guess that's what my Econ profs meant when they said "given a rational consumer." ;-)
And they are best with mustard. My Southern friends know what I'm talking about!
My husband's employer has a parking problem at their site. They set up a hugely popular bus shuttle for their employees.
I think I'm posting on this subject mostly because I see DD taking ownership of an issue that just isn't his problem. Rising gas prices are a factor for all of us, but they are something that the cc students will be dealing with globally: when they go to work, when they shop for groceries, etc. The share of the pain that can be directly attributed to driving to campus is just so small that it shouldn't affect the student's behavior. (Anonymous 9:15's note about non-rational economic actors is well put, though.)
The shuttle bus suggestion isn't a bad one. I work in a very large office complex in an urban area, and there isn't even remotely enough parking to go around. In response, my employer set up a system of peripheral parking lots with shuttle buses, and heavily subsidized the parking fees. By my calculations, I save more in gas than I pay to use the parking system, and I don't have to park six blocks from my office. On the other hand, this system works only because parking downtown is so painful. I'm not sure $4/gallon gas rises to that level of pain.
Public transportation is not a meaningful part of the solution, in my opinion. People like the freedom and control (sometimes illusory) of personal, private transportation. I traveled in Eastern European Country a few years ago, a place with very low salaries and very high gas prices. Roughly $8 per gallon, though in terms of purchasing power parity I would guess closer to $20 per gallon. Despite that killer cost, the roads were frequently choked with drivers, even though there was a very decent, well used and much respected mass transit system in place.
A pdf document showing the price of gasoline in actual and constant dollars contains interesting facts about the reality of that energy cost over the last 50 years. For example, gas was cheap (cheaper than 30 cents/gallon was in 1962) during the great SUV craze of the 1990s.
The drop of the dollar relative to the Euro explains about $13 of the price per barrel increase in just the past 10 months.
Lets say you drive to a suburban WalMart to buy a cheap item made in China. The dollars you give to WalMart in exchange are then shipped to China, which uses that surplus of $$$ to buy oil in direct competition with the U.S. so the Chinese can drive to their WalMart and buy the same stuff we want.
That, along with the fact that oil production may have peaked in the biggest oil fields, might explain the rest of the price increase: less supply plus more demand means those who can afford to buy it will win the bidding war.
Of course, many of our students still choose to drive. But I choose to commute with my UTA pass, and I see many students at SLCC doing the same thing. If gas does become more expensive (way beyond my area of expertise), I predict more and more students will choose to use public transportation.
Small enough to be cheap to buy and run, large enough to do highway speeds and more.
If the country is optimised for personal transport then sorting it for public transport will be very hard.
Using smaller cheaper personal transport means fewer parking problems, less congestion, and gives the country (and the college) more time.
Harder if you have snow I admit. But if no snow then encourage powered two wheelers. Set up a motorcycle parking area that is convenient to the main buildings. Make sure it is flat, with good tarmac. Paint bike size parking bays. Have lockers for motorcyclists where they can put their helmets and gear. Make the lockers tall enough for a one piece suit to hang doubled over, wide enough for a helmet. Be sure they have ventilation so wet gear doesn't grow mold. (locker management can be a pain, there are various ways to deal with locker-hoarders though.)
Talk to your local motorcycle shops about them sponsoring a show on campus with student-friendly bikes. Don't just talk to the ones selling new, ask the 2nd hand bike shop to show up with some likely candidates. Talk to your local motorcycle training people about training - student discount? Training on campus? Locate your local bike clubs and ask if they have people who might do afternoon/evening "bike buses" where new riders can follow someone experienced, learning traffic smarts.
Colst said "Anonymous, you're missing the point on the insurance thing. DD isn't proposing unlinking insurance from driving performance, he's talking about linking the part of it that covers damage done by other drivers who don't have insurance to (approximately) miles driven."
Dean Dad, is Colst right? What exactly do you mean?
It seems that even if Colst is right about what you mean, then those "other drivers who don't have insurance" (wouldn't that be all of us if the proposed unlinking occurs?) would have an incentive to do what anonymous 6:43am predicts?
I've been in class with students (again, usually women) who attend a 7 am class, rush to work, come back at noon for another class, go back to work, pick up the kids, get everyone settled for the evening, and come back to campus at 7 pm for another class.
While we’re used to seeing 19-yr-old students (who arrive at 10 am and leave at 2 pm) milling around campus, they can usually absorb the financial hit when gas prices rise, tuition increases, and textbooks skyrocket. It's the nontrads who have to decide which gas bill to pay -- the heating kind or the driving kind.
Public transportation is not an option as my community college is located in wealthy suburb of Kansas City and our decidedly limited transit system is a nothing more than a tool to keep “those” people from moving into our area.
As I sit here writing this in my college’s library (where I also work), I see the evening regulars who come to the reference desk not to ask for assistance but to grab handfuls of candy from our dishes because as they’ve told us on many occasions – it’s the only food they’ll eat all day.
Your real problem is your students' lack of time and credit, which makes it difficult for them to get car loans and information necessary to acquire reliable transportation. Look into solutions for that problem -- student credit unions, free used car inspections by shop students, a database of complaints against dealers, etc. The best thing about this program is that it's a good idea no matter what.
Side note: if you have the choice, go for biking.
They had a commuter bus to the college once upon a time, and it would be common sense to reinstate it now. Each winter we lose one or two students (and occasionally faculty) to stupid accidents, or have students miss classes because their atrociously maintained cars break down.
The increase in gasoline prices would be the nail in the coffin.
Yet no one in the administration has moved to reinstate the buses that a rival college in the same general area, with much better connections to public transport, has routinely offered its students.
There was no public transit to 'my' college at all for the first two years of my stay; myriad complaints have brought back limited bus service. It has to get better. It could if there was some real leadership in the town or the college.
Back in the early '90s, when my husband I were young and broke, we drove absolute beaters. He could do the car repairs himself, but after a while we noticed that we were paying at least $100/month for car parts, and didn't dare drive more than 60 miles from home. So, we bought a good-quality used car on credit, which immediately paid for itself in improvedgas mileage and reliability.
A student like Miguel's working moms are simply not going to be able to use a non-car-based solution. If you use public transportation, you spend time waiting. If a bus runs late, or if you run late, your entire day goes out of whack. If you're not under too much time pressure, no big deal...you can get your assigned reading done while you're waiting for the next bus. If you've got to be home to get some food into the kids, it's an issue.
BTW, I'm a bit skeptical of Miguel's candy-dish raiders, because nobody (not welfare recipients, not grad students, nobody who isn't actually homeless) is so poor or rushed that they can't bring in a peanut-butter sandwich. I mean, that's about 30 cents and two minutes of prep time.
I saw a concept car which would suburbia. It was a one person car (although it could go highway speeds). The concept was to make a car cheap enough you could pick it up at a kiosk at a public transportation terminal and drive it the last couple miles to where you need to go.
Bottom line is that when there is a financial need, ideas will be developed. We have a society of large cars and no carpooling or respectable public transporation because gas has been so cheap for really the history of our country. Nobody conserves something which is cheap.
Societies change. Something as easy to do as carpooling would be a solution for your students.
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